During one of my recent Sunday School lessons, one of my students asked me whether hell was a real place or not. He also wanted to know if there was any way of getting out of hell, should a person end up in it. In an attempt to provide a thoughtful and Scriptural answer, I decided the thoroughly investigate this topic. The following paragraphs will deal with my findings from a Scriptural point of view.

The first thing you need to understand is that there are four different words used for “hell” in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of Scripture. These words are [1]:

  • Sheol
    • A Hebrew word used in the Old Testament only. This word occurs 65 times in the original text. When translated into the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, it is used 31 times as grave, 31 times as hell and, 3 times as pit.
    • Definition / description: “Sheol is the abode of the dead, a place of degradation, the locality or condition of those who have died or have been destroyed. It is implied that although, so far as the world is concerned, they have perished, yet they are still in a state of existence and are within God’s cognizance”.
  • Hades
    • A Greek word used in the New Testament only. This word occurs 11 times in the original text. When translated into the KJV of the Bible, it is used 10 times as hell and once as grave.
    • Definition / description: “Hades is the region of the departed spirits of the lost (but including the blessed dead in periods preceding the ascension of Christ)”. “It corresponds to Sheol in Old Testament”.
  • Gehenna
    • A Greek word used in the New Testament only. This word occurs 12 times in the original text. When translated into the KJV of the Bible, it is used 9 times as hell and once as hell fire.
    • Definition / description: This is an actual place in Jerusalem, ” a valley of (the son of) Hinnom (or Ge-Hinnom)”. This word is only used by Jesus himself in the New Testament. It is a word that describes a place where there is “a state of everlasting punishment”.
  • Tartarŏs
    • A Greek word used only once in the New Testament. It was translated as cast down to hell in the KJV of the Bible.
    • Definition / description: “The deepest abyss of Hades”. “To incarcerate in eternal torment”.

I have listed the four different words used for hell in the original text, but it does not automatically illuminate how these terms differ from one another, if at all. Of course the best way to illuminate this ‘grey’ picture, is to shed the light of the Word on it.

The one word that does not directly impact us as human beings, is Tartarŏs. The only Scriptural passage that mentions this place, as well as provide any explanation to it, is 2 Peter 2:4. It seems to be a temporary place where God placed the angels who sinned until the day of judgement. This may be an interesting topic to study further, however, as it does not form part of the scope of the question, I will not deal with it further in this article.

  • 2 Peter 2:4: “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to Tartarŏs and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.”

Jesus, in Luke 16:19-31, gives a true account of a certain rich man and beggar, called Lazarus. In this account Jesus tells about a certain rich man dying and going to Hades. The rich man was conscious, but ended up in a place of torment. He was, even in this place, somehow conscious and could see the saints in Abraham’s bosom. From this passage, together with the passages corresponding to the words Sheol and Hades in Scripture, we understand that before Jesus’ death (at the time this account was given), the souls of everyone who died went to Hades. We are told in prophecy that Hades is not the final destination of souls, but that everyone will rather be resurrected; either to eternal life or eternal damnation. At the time before Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, it seems that Hades were divided into at least two sections namely, the place of torment and Abraham’s bosom. There is some that believe Tartarŏs was also part of Hades, but I cannot clearly see this from Scripture. From the account of Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus, we learn that:

  • In the place of torment there is an agonizing pain caused by fire (Luke 16:24).
  • In Abraham’s bosom the souls were being comforted (Luke 16:25).
  • There was and is no way to cross over or travel between the place of torment and Abraham’s bosom.

The temporary dwelling place of souls of the dead have changed slightly since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus into Heaven. People who now die in this period without accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour still temporarily resides in Sheol / Hades. On the other hand, born again Christians now immediately go into the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. The following Scripture passages provide support of this view.

  • Luke 23:43: And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
  • Philippians 1:23: For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:8: We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

The previous sections dealt with our temporary abodes when we die, however, the Bible also speaks about our final destination. Note that the temporary dwelling places mentioned in the above passages refers only to the location of our souls; where our body has perished and our soul remains. There will however be a day when we will be bodily resurrected:

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:14: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:16: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

From these passages in the Bible, it is plainly stated that we will one day be bodily resurrected. It is further stated that born again believers will rise first. Now you may ask, raised for what? Once again, Scripture provides the best explanation.

  • Daniel 12:2: And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
  • John 5:28-29: Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
  • Acts 24:15: I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.

This means both believers and unbelievers alike will be bodily resurrected. When will this happen? In the revelation of things to come, given to the apostle John by Jesus Christ, Jesus explains the two types of resurrections, together with the different timings. The resurrection of believers will occur in two stages. Firstly, as seen in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, all believers in Christ will be raised at the rapture of the Bride of Christ (the Church). If you believe in the pre-tribulation rapture of believers, this resurrection spoken of will take place before (or at the start of) the 7 year tribulation period.

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:16: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
  • 1 Corinthians 15: 51-54: Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

There will be another group of believers that will be resurrected after the period of the great tribulation. This group of people are known as the tribulation saints.

  • Revelation 20:4-6: And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.

For those who endure and who are faithful to Jesus Christ, this is excellent news. However, for those who did not accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior while alive on Earth, the resurrection of the unbelievers is described in Scripture, as seen in the below passage:

  • Revelation 20:11-15: Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.

The lake of fire described here corresponds with Gehenna which Jesus spoke and warned about. Unfortunately, there is no escaping Gehenna either. In Matthew 25:41 Jesus talks about the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

The good news for everyone is that God provided us with a way to escape hell, whether we are speaking about Sheol/Hades or Gehenna. Scripture explains how we can escape everlasting damnation and be brought into everlasting life.

  • Romans 10:9-10: If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

When you confess Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour and truly believe that God raised him from the dead, the promise (from God) is that you will be saved. When you are saved, you are born again of the Spirit of God. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus in John 3:3:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

As you have learnt in this article, the Bible clearly teaches eternal life; either eternal life in Heaven or eternal life in Gehenna (hell). I encourage you to therefore carefully consider your eternal position. The gift of eternal life is a free gift, available to everyone and anyone.

John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

References:

  1. Strong, J., Kohlenberger, J. R., III and Strong, J. (2001) The new Strong’s expanded exhaustive concordance of the Bible. T. Nelson. Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.nwulib.nwu.ac.za/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01185a&AN=nwu.b1380957&site=eds-live (Accessed: 24 September 2019).
  2. New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible. All Scripture passages provided in article.
  3. Cover Photo by icon0.com from Pexels
  4. Copy Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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